Bruce Cockburn – Pacing the Cage

This brisk 65 minute documentary captures Cockburn in fine fettle.  Using mostly recent footage, the documentary places the Canadian singer-songwriter in context for both the longtime fan and the newly arrived.

I try to use sparely the phrase ‘criminally underrated’ but in the case of Cockburn, it is an apt description. I first heard his song “Wondering Where the Lions Are” decades ago on FM radio growing up outside Buffalo. The DJ did not back announce, and it took me years to figure out who sang the song.  Youngsters will be baffled by that predicament, but back in the day there were no apps for that.  I guess I was too shy to ask about the song at my local record store.  A couple years later when I figured out the song was from a guy across the border in Canada, I was hooked.  Cockburn has released a steady stream of solid albums, each marked by an intelligent lyrical perspective, sparkling arrangements and jaw-dropping guitar work.

"Slice of Life" was the album recorded during the filming of the "Pacing the Cage" documentary

“Slice of Life” was the album recorded during the filming of the “Pacing the Cage” documentary

It may be apocryphal as the documentary points out, but apparently when someone asked Eddie Van Halen what it was like being the best guitarist in the world, he said “I don’t know, ask Bruce Cockburn.”  For his part, Cockburn merely says “I am a pretty good guitarist for a lyricist.”  In fact, one of his later albums is Speechless, a clever title of stunning acoustic instrumentals.

bruce cHis lyrics are consistently thought-provoking.  He states midway through the documentary about his songwriting, “I am not telling people what to think. I am saying this is what I saw, this is how I felt. Check it out. If it is not interesting, don’t check it out any more. This is what I can offer.”  Probably no song best captures the Cockburn songwriting strategy, worldview and vibrant imagery than “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”  Describing the reign of terror by Guatemalan dictator Montt, the song from 1984 took some folks aback.  The song firmly planted Cockburn as a musical activist.  Indeed, the documentary opens with Bono (the seemingly ever present documentary guest) reciting the lyrics, then praising the brilliance of Cockburn with unfeigned jealousy.

Cockburn does not hide his Christianity (nor do ¾ of U2 for that matter), but “Rocket Launcher” certainly caught many folks by surprise.  Written during his first visit to the Third World, the lyrics flowed as freely as the whiskey from the bottle nearby.

In subsequent years, Cockburn would continue his observations in sharply detailed songs like “If A Tree Falls.” The documentary shows a few of his recent appearances at benefit concerts to draw attention to issues ranging from child soldiers to uranium mining. But any political stridency is balanced by some of the warmest love songs. “The Coldest Night of the Year” evokes lonely winters apart from a lover. And “Last Night of the World” brings it all down to this lovely observation:

If this were the last night of the world
What would I do?
What would I do that was different
Unless it was champagne with you?

The documentary mentions that other performers have recorded over 400 covers of Cockburn’s songs, which is a tribute in itself. He mentions a trip to work with Toumani Diabate, the kora player from Mali. Cockburn was struck by the innocence of Diabate’s two year old son joining in the session, and reflects that he hopes he can be as open musically with his newborn son.  In addition to the intro from Bono, various other folks offer their perspectives. Jackson Browne marvels at Cockburn’s guitar prowess (“I thought it was all done with equipment, but then he played totally acoustic and it was even better!”) and author Michael Ondaatje describes Cockburn’s place as a songwriter.

The production values are great, the documentary opens (after Bono’s introduction) with some 8mm film shot on the road across the Canadian border at Buffalo – Niagara Falls. The concert footage is intimate and the performances are strong.

Cockburn is a jewel, and this documentary will hopefully shine more light on him.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.